Seek and ye shall find a resource;Briefing;Research focus

26th June 1998 at 01:00
As universities brace themselves for a major DFEE review ofeducation research, David Halpin reasserts the value of academic inquiry that does more than provide "tips for Monday morning".

Academic writing about education, especially reports of educational research, is often said to be irrelevant to the work of classroom teachers.

This attitude has support at the highest level. The Education and Employment Secretary, David Blunkett, has, for example, encouraged the Teacher Training Agency to clamp down on educational research that is not closely related to improving classroom practice.

Mr Blunkett's negative assessment has support even within the education research community. Professor Alan Smithers, of Brunel University, is reported to have said that most education research is "a desperate waste of time".

The issues that should be tackled head on, he told the British Association's Annual Festival of Science last September, were problems relating to literacy and numeracy: identifying the routine errors children make, finding ways to diagnose them, and devising effective methods of correcting them.

Smithers argued that educational research is too often unreadable because it is written up in "gobbledegook". And, to illustrate his point, he cited an article on post-modernism and education which appeared in the British Journal of Educational Studies, an academic periodical which I help to edit.

In fact, he ridiculed post-modern studies generally, saying that they did nothing to meet teachers' professional needs. But, then, this is hardly surprising, because they're not meant to. Smithers's own, very serious, published output on other matters doesn't either.

What I and other journal editors help to publish is designed to inform debate and help to refine people's intelligence about particular issues in education, not to provide teachers with "tips for Monday morning".

Professor Smithers might also have been less provocative if he had done some systematic research on the actual, rather than imagined, state of research in education. What appears like a casual look through the back copies of an ad hoc selection of academic journals in educational studies in his university library is no substitute for comprehensive, disinterested enquiry.

Sadly, so little of it has been so far undertaken, and not just by Smithers. As Professor Donald McIntyre commented in his 1996 presidential address to the British Educational Research Association: "Much of our debate about what educational research in Britain is like, and what is or is not wrong with it, is conducted on the basis of very limited and inadequate information."

We need better data, in other words. What I have in mind here, although I recognise it has weaknesses of its own, is the sort of analysis undertaken by the education panel for the 1996 Higher Education Funding Council's research assessment exercise (RAE), which entailed reviewing the quality of the academic productivity of nearly 3,000 "research active staff" in more than l00 British university departments of education.

Significantly, it concluded that "the amount of research recorded, the coherence of many departmental research strategies and the frequent commitment both to theoretical development and to deepening the research base of professional practice evident in the best submissions, were impressive".

This conclusion is supported broadly by Michael Bassey's and Hilary Constable's review of the list of publications submitted by education academics for the 1996 RAE. It indicates that well over half of this material falls into one or more of the following professionally relevant categories: "curriculum issues", "schoolteacherchild issues", "teaching learning issues" and "teacher education and INSET issues".

Of course, it could be argued that these positive conclusions are the result of partisan analysis carried out by educational researchers who "would say that, wouldn't they?" Moreover, they tell us nothing about the impact of these publications on educational practice, and here the educational research community may need to think differently about how better to disseminate the products of its enquiries. But, simultaneously, it may need to remind its critics, including many teachers, that the idea of "being practical" is highly contested, and that attempts to insist on one version of relevance in this context may contribute to a retrogressive narrowing of focus.

Educational research cannot simply be seen as being just or even mostly about providing solutions to problems faced by teachers in the classroom. On the contrary, one can imagine any number of occasions when teachers' own assessments of difficulties in their work might be part of the problem itself and thus warrant investigation in their own right.

We need to consider the future of research in education in a more measured way. A better starting point might be the views of the late Lawrence Stenhouse, who saw the function of educational research as providing a "theory of educational practice testable by the experiments of teachers in classrooms". On this understanding, educational research should not fundamentally be about providing solutions to practical problems. Rather, it should, among other things, seek to provide teachers with a resource to solve their own difficulties.

McIntyre said much the same in his BERA lecture, while evoking a wider set of issues: "The conduct and claims of research need to be open to public scrutiny and criticism... The purpose must be to improve our theoretical understanding, and it should usefully inform the development of educational practice."

While few would be likely to dissent from the first two propositions, the third is more problematic because there are many ways in which research knowledge can inform educational practice. Moreover, research knowledge takes many forms - analytical, theoretical, empirical, descriptive, predictive, experimental, speculative, explorative.

That is as it should be, given the complexity of the nature of educational practice and the difficulty of identifying appropriate action plans to improve it. But whether researchers should provide solutions to practical classroom problems is another matter. As Ian Stronach and Maggie Maclure have said: "A better strategy for educational research might be to see how far it can get by failing to deliver simple truths."

David Halpin is professor ofeducation at Goldsmiths College,University of London

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